Minneapolis police workers’ comp claims have skyrocketed

By: - June 21, 2021 7:00 am

Minneapolis Police guard the third precinct on May 27, before it was taken over by rioters. Photo by Max Nesterak/Minnesota Reformer.

The city of Minneapolis could pay some $34 million or more in workers’ compensation claims filed by city employees since the murder of George Floyd by former police officer Derek Chauvin. 

The Minneapolis City Council has approved 16 workers’ comp settlements out of 756 claims filed by city employees since Floyd’s murder, for injuries to employees sustained last year. Payouts have ranged from a low of $90,000 to a high of $250,000, according figures provided by the city finance office. 

The number of claims jumped nearly 69% from 2019 to 2020, from 439 to 740 claims. City finance staff said that’s largely due to police officer claims, which rose significantly in the second half of last year, though the city did not respond to specific questions about the increase.

The city is self-insured, which means departments pay premiums into a fund to cover lawsuits and workers’ comp claims. In other words, Minneapolis residents cover the costs of these lawsuits through taxes and fees.

The city’s workers’ comp self-insurance fund currently has $32.5 million in cash available, according to the city finance office.

Because of the steep increase in payouts, the police department is paying more into the city’s self-insurance fund. Workers’ comp premiums have gone up more than 66% since 2016. Additionally, following a number of steep settlements for police brutality cases, department liability premiums jumped nearly 21% from 2019 to 2020.

Last year, workers’ comp claims and expenses cost the city self-insurance fund $11.7 million, less than the year prior and on par with 2017-2018, but lots of claims are still pending.

Those employees are also entitled to monthly disability leave payments through their retirement plan. 

Attorney Ronald Meuser Jr., who represents dozens of Minneapolis cops and firefighters, said the settlements are in the best interest of injured employees and the city, since they cost less than the city would have to pay if the cases went to trial and the city had to pay for lost wages and medical expenses for life.

“The attorneys for the city of Minneapolis recognize that the city has a great deal of exposure to liability,” Meuser said. “It’s not like they’re just throwing money at these guys. These are fair settlements.”

Meuser represents about 200 Minneapolis cops and firefighters who have filed workers’ comp claims since Floyd’s murder and the aftermath. Given the current average settlement of $169,000, the total cost of those 200 claims alone could reach $34 million.

The vast majority of the employees filing workers’ comp claims have left their jobs due to a disability, specifically post-traumatic stress disorder, Meuser said. While employees can continue working after filing a claim, the majority of his clients have been unable to do so because their symptoms are triggered when they’re exposed to traumatic situations, he said.

The disability claims are paradoxical: Many residents say the trauma of police brutality is exactly what motivated the explosive reaction after Floyd was murdered. 

Professor Thomas Coghlan is a retired New York Police Department detective and professor of clinical psychology at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, which is part of the City University of New York. After retiring from NYPD in 2018, he opened a private practice to treat police officers in multiple states.

He said police unions sometimes stage “sickouts,” or encourage cops to “go dead,” meaning they stop writing tickets and making arrests and take their time on calls. They do this to “discipline” the department or community, he said. 

“How long can you go to work being vilified for having shown up to work, through no fault of your own?” Coghlan said of the possible attitude of some Minneapolis police officers.

But he said there are likely many genuine cases of post-traumatic stress disorder among Minneapolis officers after the events of 2020.

“I think what we’re seeing are high levels of post-traumatic stress disorder and burnout but also compassion fatigue, (where) you no longer see (people) as being something worth putting yourself in harms’ way,” he said. “It’s far more dangerous than burnout.”

Meuser, the attorney, said post-traumatic stress among officers is not a trifling matter. “This is a very real and very serious condition that these individuals are suffering from.”

Last week, the City Council agreed to empty its $5 million reserve fund for police overtime, to help make up for the loss of 220 full-time police employees this year. 

As the pandemic worsened and then violent crime spiraled last year, police officers left the department in droves — retiring, resigning or taking disability leave. The department had 632 sworn officers as of May 31, compared to 845 around the same time last year. About 60 officers are also on disability leave, and are still being paid.

Minneapolis Police Chief Medaria Arradondo told the council that as of May 22, the police department had spent $5.2 million on overtime this year. Arradondo said there are no more “foot beats,” meaning neighborhood police beats. Officers are focused on responding to 911 calls, he said.

An officer who was granted anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media said after decades on the force — during which he says he doesn’t think he used a single sick day — he went on sick leave in late June 2020 due to post-traumatic stress. 

He was in the back of the Third Precinct police station for three days, until it was evacuated by police and burned. He said he was shot at while on Hiawatha Avenue.

“I was everywhere that bad things were happening,” he said. “The big issue with the riots was that we weren’t allowed to do our jobs. We were basically told to just stand in the back of the precinct and get (hit with) rocks and bottles and fireworks and shot at without any recourse or or being able to do our police job.”

He said officers don’t feel supported by anyone from the City Council to the governor.

“In the city of Minneapolis, they treat it like it’s a joke,” he said of PTSD. “They feel like they would rather throw a cop in jail before throwing a criminal in jail. So it’s sad. It’s a sad time.”

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Deena Winter

Deena Winter is a freelance journalist who has covered state and local government in four states over the past three decades.

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